Both sides in suit mourn judge's death

Dec 23, 1998 at 12:00 am

One of the nation's most prominent African-American judges, A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., died last week of a stroke. His death is not only resonating throughout the country, but locally as well. The Yale Law School graduate and Harvard Law School professor was chosen to help arbitrate a race and age discrimination lawsuit that Detroit Edison employees filed against the giant utility in 1995.

Attorney Alice Jennings, who represents the workers, says Higginbothamwas chosen because he was an outstanding legal scholar, an advocate of civil rights and a "champion for justice." She says his death will postpone the arbitration, which was to begin next spring and be completed by the end of 1999.

Last year, the two sides agreed to have a three-person panel decide on a settlement amount between $17 million and $65 million to be divided among roughly 3,500 workers in the class action suit. Both parties chose an arbitrator of their own and the third was mutually agreed upon. It took six months for the two sides to settle on Higginbotham as the final arbitrator. He would have decided on the final amount awarded to the employees if the other arbitrators could not agree.

Higginbotham was a United States Court of Appeals judge for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia for 29 years until he retired in 1993; he served his last three years as chief judge for the circuit. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995, and wrote two books, about race and law, In the Matter of Color (1978) and Shades of Freedom (1996). He also helped oversee the settlement reached in the recent class action lawsuit employees filed against Texaco Company for race discrimination.

Both parties in the Detroit suit say they are mourning Higginbotham's death, not only because of his important role in the case here, but because of his contributions to humanity.

"The nation lost a great jurist and we are deeply saddened," says Scott Simons, spokesperson for Detroit Edison.

"He was clearly a wonderful man and it would have been a privilege to have him serve as arbitrator of this case," says Jeanne Mirer, attorney for the plaintiffs. "Few are able to live up to his reputation and stature."

The two sides plan to meet soon and decide on an arbitrator to replace Higginbotham.